Amid such alarming news, Americans depend on the president to offer reassurance and lay out a realistic plan of action. That is not what President Trump delivered in his Oval Office address on Wednesday night. His speech was a catalogue of errors that only made an already grim situation even worse.
To be sure, it wasn’t quite as bad as it could have been. Trump did not again call coronavirus concern a “hoax” perpetrated by his political opponents, or compare it to the common flu, or suggest that it would “miraculously” disappear on its own very soon. His tone was appropriately solemn. But he could not resist boasting and preening about the U.S. response and falling back on his nativist comfort zone.
Trump cited the relatively low number of confirmed U.S. cases so far as evidence that the country is successfully dealing with the disease. "Taking early intense action,” he said, “we have seen dramatically fewer cases of the virus in the United States than are now present in Europe.” In reality, the limited number of confirmed cases in the United States is evidence of an appalling failure to test as many people as we should. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website listed only eight tests conducted on Tuesday throughout the whole country. South Korea is testing 10,000 people a day.
The major step that Trump announced Wednesday — banning most air travel from some European countries for 30 days — made no sense on multiple levels. One of the countries he excluded, the United Kingdom, has more cases (456) than many of the countries included in the flight ban, and anyone can travel from one of those other countries to the U.K. and fly to the United States. It’s hard to see any rational reason to exclude the U.K. and Ireland, save that Trump owns golf resorts in both countries.
The administration immediately had to clarify that Trump was wrong to say the ban would apply to cargo as well as people, that it would cover all of Europe and that it would bar all travelers (permanent residents, U.S. citizens and their families are excluded). Oh, and Trump was also wrong that the health insurance industry had “agreed to waive all co-payments for coronavirus treatments”; payments are being waived for tests, not treatments. That’s four major mistakes in an 11-minute speech that should have been carefully vetted. The incompetence is mind-boggling but sadly typical of this dysfunctional administration.
The plan Trump announced was faulty not just in execution but in conception. Why ban travel from Europe when the United States already has more coronavirus cases than many European countries? Trump has just created a crisis with some of our closest allies — who were not notified beforehand — for no good reason. Even Trump’s own former homeland security adviser, Tom Bossert, tweeted: “There’s little value to European travel restrictions. Poor use of time & energy. Earlier, yes. Now, travel restrictions/screening are less useful. We have nearly as much disease here in the US as the countries in Europe.”
The experts agree that the focus now must be on intensive testing and intrusive social mitigation — canceling public gatherings, closing schools, encouraging everyone to work from home. But Trump did not announce any significant new initiatives on either front.
He did not even declare a national state of emergency — something he has previously done for the southern border and cybersecurity. An emergency declaration could give Trump broader powers to mobilize the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the military, among other resources, but Politico reports that Trump is concerned it “could hamper his narrative that the coronavirus is similar to the seasonal flu and could further agitate Wall Street.” Actually, it’s Trump’s failure to take decisive action that is agitating Wall Street, with stocks in free fall the morning after his speech. Trump is heightening, not ameliorating, pandemic panic.
Who could have predicted that Trump would be such an incompetent crisis manager? Pretty much everyone, actually. Yet nearly 63 million Americans voted for him anyway — and the Republican-controlled Senate refused to convict and remove him in January for his impeachable conduct. The entire country is now paying for those colossally irresponsible decisions as we face the worst crisis since 9/11 under the bungling leadership of the worst president in modern times.
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